On June 13, 2017, Alexandria, Virginia police officer Nicole Battaglia’s shift had begun as routinely as all her previous shifts with one significant exception: she had completed her first year on the streets and was no longer a probationer.
There was nothing spectacular or even memorable about her day. She had slept, she worked out in the afternoon, and she had dinner with her husband before returning that evening for her next shift.
Nicole could not have predicted that one year later, to the day, she would give birth to identical twin daughters. Nor could she have predicted that by the end of her shift that night she would rush to the scene of an active shooter, that she would confront a gunman on a baseball field, that she would spend a few moments that seemed like an eternity pinned down by rifle fire, or that she would be the one to draw gunfire away from a group of United States congressmen.
Such is the “never knowing” life of a first responder.
A Desire to Serve
From an early age, Nicole had longed to serve her country. Her father, now-retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lieutenant James Longobardo, had been a significant influence on her desire to do so. She had always looked up to him, was enthralled with his line of work, and she was proud when he would come to her school and speak to her class about being a deputy sheriff.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote a blog about my first encounter with the legendary lawman, Jim Longobardo.
I was an academy cadet and Jim was a salty patrol deputy working Pico Rivera.
You can read it here: Paying Your Dues: An LASD Tradition.
Until she met her husband, Nicole had planned to serve in the navy. But deploying for long periods of time didn’t appeal to her once she had thoughts of family life. Instead, she continued her education and graduated from American University with a master’s degree.
Alexandria Police Department
After college, Nicole landed an entry-level position working for a State Department contractor who specialized in investigating international parental child abductions. It was an interesting job but she described her position there as “cheap labor,” someone who did a lot of phone work while isolated in a cubicle. Soon, she decided that law enforcement was her calling. After all, she says, it was in her blood.
Nicole applied to be a police officer with the City of Alexandria, and just a few months later she had been hired and was on her way to the academy. She found the academy mostly tiring, as she got up at 3:30 each morning and rarely made it home before 6:30 p.m. There was only enough time to shine her boots and iron her uniform before going to bed.
But soon the academy was behind her and she hit the streets assigned to a field training officer.
In 2017 there were six murders in the city of Alexandria, 3.8 per 100,000 residents. It is neither one of the 100 safest nor most dangerous cities in America.
Located seven miles south of Washington D.C.—where 116 murders occurred in that same year—and along the western bank of the Potomac River, Alexandria is largely populated by professionals working in the federal civil service, the U.S. military, or one of many private companies which contract to provide services to the federal government. The U.S. Department of Defense is Alexandria’s largest employer.
There are more than 300 sworn officers within the ranks of the Alexandria police department, divided among various assignments, shifts, and ranks. Nicole was assigned to the patrol division, midnight shift.
June 14, 2017
It was a warm and humid morning as the sun and temperature began to rise. Nicole stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts for her morning cup of coffee before heading into the station for her end of watch.
Meanwhile, at nearby Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, twenty-four Republican members of Congress gathered to practice for the annual Congressional baseball game for charity which was scheduled for the following day. Among them were U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Senators Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, and Representatives Roger Williams, Chuck Fleischmann, Trent Kelly, Mo Brooks, Brad Wenstrup, Rodney Davis, Jeff Duncan, Jack Bergman, and Joe Barton. There were also three Capitol Police officers present, assigned as protection detail for Scalise.
James Thomas Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old Illinois resident, was a former home inspector who had had several brushes with the law but had never been convicted of any crimes. A few months before that day, he had left his home and traveled to the area “in search of employment.”
His presence there was politically motivated. He had contacted his home district representative on at least ten occasions expressing his anger on various matters. He had written twenty-seven letters to the editor of the Belleville News-Democrat on various anti-Republican topics. He had volunteered on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 election campaign, he had been an active Occupy Wall Street protestor, and he had advocated the “destruction” of President Trump and the Republican party. He was found with a list of Republican congressmen in his pocket, some of whom were at the practice.
On June 14, 2017, shortly after 7:00 a.m., Hodgkinson walked to the third base side of Simpson Field and began firing his SKS 7.62 x 39 caliber rifle indiscriminately at the field of baseball-playing congressmen.
(The SKS is a 7.62 x 39 caliber semi-automatic rifle that is similar to and often mistaken for the AK-47.)
Officer Battaglia’s Response
Officer Nicole Battaglia had just departed Dunkin’ Donuts and turned left out of the parking lot when she saw four priority calls pop up on the screen of her MDB (mobile data browser). At first, she thought the dispatcher had made a mistake; it was unusual to have four priority calls come in at once. But as she read the calls on her screen, Nicole realized it was no mistake at all; there was a shooting at Simpson Field.
It was not only within her beat, but it was also just a mile from her location. She activated her lights and siren and rolled Code 3 to the scene.
Nicole was the second Alexandria unit to arrive at the scene, and a third unit came in right behind her. As she exited her vehicle, people were directing her toward the baseball field, indicating the gunman’s location. She instinctively pulled her gun from its holster and ran toward the field.
Pinned Down by Gunfire
As she neared the field, Nicole took cover behind a parked vehicle, a Lexus SUV. Because, as she explained, “I have good taste in my choices of cover.” From that position, she saw the armed suspect approximately seventy-five feet away. She yelled for him to drop his weapon, but before she could finish the command, the suspect raised his rifle and began firing it at her.
Bullets tore into the Lexus Nicole had chosen for her cover. Others whizzed over her head.
She stayed huddled behind the engine block and called for assistance on her radio, alerting all others that she was under fire. And the shooting continued.
In the moments that followed, Nicole wondered if this was it, was she going to make it home. She knew that at any moment one of the rifle rounds could rip through the metal of the car and kill her. She thought of her family and how her husband might feel if he knew the situation she was in at that moment. “It’s amazing what goes through your head in situations like that,” she said.
Then it was Over
The shooting stopped.
Nicole would later learn that when she had run toward the gunman and yelled for him to drop his gun, his attention became narrowly focused on her. He no longer shot at the various congressmen and Capitol Police officers who were spread across the baseball field, and he was oblivious to two of her partners who had come at him from a different direction.
One of the two other Alexandria officers, who was armed with an M-4, a shoulder-mounted rifle with greater range, accuracy, and takedown power than their standard-issued .40 caliber Glock pistols, had been able to take the suspect down with a shot from his rifle. From the ground, the suspect withdrew a nine-millimeter pistol and continued his attack. Police continued firing until the suspect was down for good.
The moment the shooting stopped, Nicole and another officer left their positions and ran to the suspect’s location where they provided cover and assisted in handcuffing him. One of her partners asked if she was okay. “Yeah,” she said, “are you alright?” He said he was. That is when the adrenaline dump began and she started shaking.
Over the years, law enforcement has evolved as to how we treat officers who have been involved in traumatic incidents. One widely accepted practice is to minimize the exposure of involved personnel once a situation is under control. Generally, officers involved in shootings are whisked away from the scene as soon as appropriate and made comfortable at their stations until they have provided their statements. Some agencies don’t require statements until the next day or later, by which time an officer has had time to process what has happened.
When I was a young deputy, a colleague was involved in an off-duty shooting at a church. (You can read more about that story here.) The detectives had the deputy reenact the shooting while the scene investigation was underway and the man he had killed still lying on the floor. His career ended early from the psychological stress that the shooting and its aftermath created. Years later, when I promoted and was sent to Homicide School, that case was used as an example of what not to do with regard to reenactments and crime scenes.
In the case of the Simpson Field shooting, the officers involved in the shooting were appropriately removed from the scene as soon as it was possible. Nicole, however, remained to assist with the aftermath because, after all, she hadn’t actually fired her weapon. To the credit of an alert supervisor, she remained for less than half an hour before the supervisor recognized that Nicole was not functioning well and needed to be removed from the scene.
GOP House Majority Whip Steve Scalice was critically wounded during the attack but survived. Matt Mika, a lobbyist, was shot multiple times. He, too, was in critical condition but survived. Capitol Police Officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner were both injured during the shooting: Griner was shot in the ankle and Bailey sustained an injury caused by something other than gunfire. Zack Bath, a legislative aide to Representative Roger Williams, was shot in the calf.
The only fatality that occurred that day was that of the deranged gunman, James Thomas Hodgkinson.
In the Following Months
In the months that followed the shooting, there had been a series of “exhausting” appearances at which awards were doled out. Nicole says she has never been the type to relish the attention, and she described a television appearance where she received the Medal of Honor as one of her worst nightmares.
Nicole was, however, touched by the kindness of several congressmen who expressed their gratitude for her actions that morning. One, she said, approached to shake her hand but began crying instead and gave her a big hug. The congressman told her he had watched her run into the park, and that she saved his life.
In a fantastic reporting of this story by Buzzfeed, The Nine Minutes that Almost Changed America, Congressman Wenstrup is quoted as saying: “I remember watching this very petite policewoman; she came charging in gangbusters. And people are yelling, ‘Stay down, take cover,’” says Wenstrup. “She knew what she was doing and she was fearless, in my opinion. I mean, I broke down when I met her because it was just, like, I’ll never forget that visual of her — just, ‘I’m here to save the day.’”
One Year Later
Exactly one year to the day after Nicole started the midnight shift that ended in a barrage of gunfire, she gave birth to twin daughters. It was about a year and a half after the shooting that she ended her law enforcement career in order to raise them.
Nicole’s actions—and those of the other officers who were there that day—no doubt saved the lives of many.
Stunningly, the FBI—which never fails to amaze me—would later state that the shooting was not politically motivated.
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Information for this blog post was provided by Nicole Battaglia and also gleaned from data contained in Wikipedia and reports from the Washingtonian and Buzzfeed News. There are many reports written on the incident that detail the action of all of the heroes involved in this incident. This blog was written to focus on Nicole, due to a connection I have made with her through her father. It is not meant to elevate her actions above any of the others’.
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Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will share it with your family and friends.